Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Between Blinking

The two-minute warning whispered from the old speakers dangling over the station platform; random words and sentence fragments thrown together by an obedient computer somewhere beneath Brisbane. “The. Caboolture. Train. Stopping all stations. Will arrive on platform. One. In approximately. Two. Minutes.” Even the looping, pre-recorded voice sounded ready to quit for the evening. This would be the last train full of commuters for the night.

The rusted, metal train tracks began to tremble almost invisibly, anticipating the train that would soon emerge from the tangle of overhead wires, buildings, and soundproof fencing in the south.

Toby was lying on his back against the black bitumen, gazing up towards the sky. It was grey; it was always grey in the city. Currently it was a bluer shade; though, there were several darker, not-quite-black blotches creeping out of the horizon. It was impossible to tell whether they were clouds or pieces of city night too impatient to wait for the sun to sink.

The speakers blurted out another message. The tracks now quivered and screeched with excitement. Toby pushed himself and his guitar off the ground just in time to see the train pull itself around the corner. It rushed into the gap that separated Toby from the station platforms and picked up an empty chip packet in a brief, ecstatic flight before sucking it under the giant wheels.

He turned his back on the train and the station and leant against the crooked carapace of a neglected bike rack. The commuters had exited the train and marched down the crumbling stairs into the tunnel dug out beneath the rails. They climbed back out on Toby’s side, a metre from the notes he strummed across the guitar. It was impossible for the commuters to avoid him on their daily pilgrimage to the parking lot.

Three businessmen and one woman tossed leftover silver coins towards the guitar case grovelling at Toby’s feet. Some stopped just to listen, but none stayed long enough to hear an entire verse.

Toby played on, unconscious of his audience as the stream of empty expressions and briefcases continued out of the tunnel. His gaze turned back towards the sky. The darker blotches of grey were growing in size and number; their undersides were outlined a pale yellow as the city sun fell. The shadows of single story buildings stretched out like skyscrapers. Balanced over the top step above the tunnel, an amber streetlight flickered on and off cautiously. After a pause it flashed on with the low hum of electricity.

Even out here, on the edge of the city, there was never darkness—just varying shades of streetlight-stained grey.

Coming back down, Toby spied the final SUV sneaking out of the car park and disappearing up the road. He stopped playing and rested the guitar against his jagged, metal stage. He crouched down amongst the loose denim threads slithering at the bottom of his jean to collect the money thrown at the guitar case. In one movement he shoved the handful of change into the deep pockets of his jacket and pulled out a lighter and a creased cigarette.

With tender fingers he straightened the cigarette, careful not to squeeze the dry flakes out into the city wind that was beginning to stir. He convinced the lighter to wake and inhaled a deep breath of ash and smoke.

With the cigarette balanced between his teeth, Toby grabbed the guitar by the fret board and laid it in the case. With another deep breath he stood himself up and brought the guitar case over his shoulder. Ready to turn his back on the station for another night, Toby slowly—suddenly—realised he wasn’t alone.

Not five metres away, a girl was sitting on top of a padlocked dumpster. She was a pale, skinny thing in a grey dress that seemed to dance and ripple in the whirls of city wind like a weightless plastic bag. Her thin, white hair whipped around her ears and shoulders in long, separate fibres. In the city light she seemed to glow flat silver between the grey concrete and black bitumen. Her eyes were yellow windows in the reflection of the streetlight. They stared straight through Toby.

It was these eyes that made it impossible for Toby to restrain from yelping, “Jesus Christ!” The dry scratching of the words over his throat told him they were the first he’d uttered all day.

Toby slowly approached her until he stood arm’s length from the dumpster. He scratched the back of his head and kicked at the loose, sandy bitumen. He opened his mouth, closed it again, and repeated the cycle two more times.

Finally, he inhaled deeply, flicked away the burnt stub that remained of his cigarette, and said, “Umm hi. You startled me. Didn’t see you turn up. Were you on that train? You don’t look like one of them. I mean—y’know—the commuters. The city people. They’re crazy going into the city like that everyday. It’s a wonder they come back at all. The city is beautiful but you don’t enter her. You can’t see how beautiful and powerful she is if you’re too close and—”

He bit his tongue and snapped his mouth shut to stop the words from spilling out: once they were gone, they were gone forever. The girl just continued to look into him with her yellow eyes and grey face.

“Sorry,” Toby hesitantly started again. “Not many people actually talk to me out here. I tend to ramble a bit if I’m not careful.” He rummaged into his pocket—his salary clinging and clanging—and pulled out two more cigarettes in worse condition than the last. “Smoke?” he offered his guest.

She held out her hand, took the paper stick, and let him light it for her. The sky was now as close to black as it would ever get. Little pinpricks of white started to dot the heavens in futile competition against the glowing orbs of the streetlights. Toby sat up on the dumpster next to the girl and looked towards the south—towards the heart of the city. It absorbed stars and darkness alike, leaving the southern night-sky diluted and stale.

“Yeah. The city is beautiful,” Toby continued. “Beautiful but a scary kind of beautiful. Dangerous beautiful. She keeps you warm and safe and wraps herself around you but she won’t let you leave. It’s like she convinces you that you don’t want to leave. The city is insecure like that. She doesn’t like people leaving. Not for any reason.

“But still she is beautiful. And as long as you don’t get too close she can’t grab you. That’s why I’m out here. I escaped. And I’m not going back neither. Not ever. I’ve seen the people she’s taken. They’re just another part of her now. They aren’t people anymore. They are just part of the city now.”

He took a deep, empty breath; his cigarette had fizzled out while he spoke. “Still,” he reassured her. “Still, she is beautiful. I love her. She keeps me warm and safe. The city loves me.”

The girl was staring towards the city lights, frozen but for the way her hair and dress perpetually drifted and danced in the wind. Her cigarette had burnt down to the orange paper and she dropped it onto the black bitumen beneath her feet. Like a golden star in a distant sky it glittered for a few seconds before burning itself out.

*

From that night forward, the girl would always sit on the dumpster and watch Toby play: a constant face in the ever-changing, but always-familiar, audience that scrolled by. As the month crawled on, the days began to shrivel until one night the final SUV was crawling away under a sky full of stars.

As the clumsy vehicle was swept away by the rumours of a distant highway, Toby pulled out two cigarettes and handed one of them to the girl, lighting them both. He exhaled and looked through the haze to the other side of the tracks. Standing tall above the trees and streetlights was a yellow crane stretching into the sky. Toby tried to grunt defiantly, but the smoke in his lungs betrayed him, making him cough violently, almost dropping the cigarette.

He regained himself and spoke, “She’s a sneaky one. The city.” He nodded the girl’s attention at the crane leaning over the houses and parks. “She’s always moving. Always growing. You never see it though. A hill flattens then a crane appears then metal girders rise up then walls and floors appear then one floor becomes two becomes ten becomes a hundred.”

The yellow-white-yellow metal zigzagged into the sky up to the slow, red throbs of light defining its highest point. From there it scratched across the sky bent over like a grown man in a toy house.

“But you never see it. She just keeps growing up and up and eventually spills out and flattens more hills and raises more girders but you never see it. You never actually see her growing. It’s like she only moves when you aren’t looking or have your eyes closed. Like between blinking or something.”

They sat in silence for a long time. The girl never once took her eyes off Toby, and Toby never once took his eyes off the crane.

He shook his head slowly without his pupils swaying from the crane, “You should be careful. The city might come this way soon. I wouldn’t want her to take you too. She ain’t picky. The city will take anyone she can reach.”

With a final, savouring inhale, Toby flicked the butt into the sky. For an immeasurable speck of time it hung frozen in the air with the other pricks of light before it sailed back to earth like a shooting star. It landed between two rocks on the train track, lighting them a dull orange before dying.

He exhaled the smoke in a narrow, drawn out line before he spoke again, “I would like to say I’d protect you. Y’know, if the city came out here. But what’s the point? I don’t want to lie to you. No one can be protected from the city. Besides if we could run away where would we go? The city will be everywhere eventually. She’s always hungry. What’s the point?”

His voice sunk lower as he realised the inevitable defeat he was speaking.

“Still,” he persisted. “She is beautiful.”

*

Over the next weeks, Toby’s performances would be sporadically interrupted as his sky gazing would ultimately lead his eyes to the towering crane lurking on the other side of the tracks. He would end a song abruptly between two syllables and miss half a trainload of commuters before he realised he wasn’t playing. Sometimes the girl would follow his gaze towards the crane, but usually she just watched him: judged him and measured him silently like a cornered animal sizing up its predator.

Slowly, wrapped together in blue tarp, metal girders sprouted out of the soil around the base of the crane. Toby never saw them moving, but every time he looked back at them he would swear they stood a little taller.

“Those. Those are the tips of her fingers. She’s really close now. I hope she stays on that side of the track. I hope she doesn’t find us.”

They were lying on their backs on the station platform. The girl was stretched out on a once-green bench; so many names trying to be remembered were scratched into the paint that they were all illegible and forgotten. Toby lay on the ground next to her. Both held cigarettes in their mouths poking towards the night-sky like tiny industrial smokestacks.

“You know,” said Toby. “I’ve been thinking. Talking to you has made me realise that the city isn’t really beautiful after all. Not as beautiful as I used to think anyhow. Like she demands respect but she isn’t beautiful. Well at least not compared to them.”

He watched intently as the smoke from his cigarette climbed from star to star, playing a lazy, curvy game of dot-to-dot.

“Not compared to the stars,” he started again once the smoke had stretched and faded into nothing. “The stars are everything. I feel really big when I look up at them. They’re so small. So far away. They can’t reach us. They can’t grab us. There wouldn’t even be a city without the stars. They were beautiful before the city was.”

He sat up and looked south towards the starless, whitewashed haze that hung above the city. “The city needs the stars. She needs them like she needs people and concrete. You know what she does? As she grows taller and taller she picks them out of the sky and uses them to light up her towers and streets.” His voice jerked as he visibly choked on the words, “She steals the stars. It’s how she traps the people I bet. Without the stars the people are lost. They look up and see only streetlights and skyscraper windows. They forget the stars ever even existed and are caught up in all the fake lights. Then they’re trapped forever!”

As they watched the sky, a cloud crept over the houses and trees and hid some of the stars from sight. Toby shook his head, “No, That’s not how she does it.” As if to prove his point, the cloud crept on without stopping and the hidden stars reappeared. “She doesn’t steal them at night. She waits till the morning. Then you can’t see them. Then she can steal them unseen and it’s so long until the next night that the stars she has stolen are already forgotten.”

His eyes glistened, and a tear rolled down his cheek. “I love my stars. I don’t want her to steal them. They’re beautiful.”

The girl didn’t cry. She just watched as the smoke from her cigarette climbed into the sky and smothered every star it came near.

*

After that night, he never met the girl again.

Everyday he would stand and slowly force his way through the chords on the guitar. He never looked at the sky anymore; the towering crane and climbing metal girders forced his fearful eyes to the ground.

As he played the too-slow songs, he would gaze at the empty space above the dumpster where she wasn’t sitting. Sometimes a tear would fall from his eye and splatter into the bitumen as he thought about the revealing conversations they had shared. Every time he pulled a cigarette from his pocket he would hesitate for a moment and shove it back in.

His fingers found the wrong notes more and more often, but fewer and fewer of the commuters noticed. One by one the strings would snap and lash violently over the fret board in a moment of ecstatic freedom before falling limp. When the last string broke free and the guitar finally fell silent, his mind was still lost in the vacant space she used to occupy.

The next day, it finally happened. Another crane had appeared: this time on his side of the track. The city had come at last.

He looked towards the dumpster one final time, “She’s coming. She already got you didn’t she? I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you. I wanted to but she’s too powerful. Too beautiful.”

Leaving his mute guitar on the bitumen like just another piece of decaying wood, he slowly pulled his feet down the stairs into the tunnel beneath the station. “Should be safe here for a while,” he mumbled, but no one was listening.

He curled up in an alcove in front of the broken elevator, out of the path of the determined commuter feet that stomped past him in even intervals. They never noticed him anymore. Like a tag scribbled on the wall or a black stain dribbling down the yellow stairs, he was just another abnormality that made the station normal. He was invisible to them just as the rumbling of the trains above were silent in their ears.

At night he would creep out onto the platforms and lay on his back. He would stare at the stars, re-assuring himself they were still there. Each night he would try to count them, but each night he would forget how many he had counted the night before.

One night he looked up and saw only one white dot; it hung precariously above the pulsing red throbs of the first crane. The stars were all but gone.

He started shaking, trembling, anticipating the defeat he knew was coming. His legs buckled under the weight of his heart, and he sat heavily over the edge of the platform; his legs dangled over the rusted lines that lead into the depths of the city. He sat in silence for the rest of the night, face clutched between his fingers to resist the temptation to look up.

After many hours, a white-blue-purple-orange-red line thinned out the fragments of horizon between the buildings and cranes. A click and a hum signalled the station returning to life for another day. “The. Brisbane city. And. Roma Street. Train. Stopping all stations. Will arrive on platform. Two. In approximately. Two. Minutes. Please stand behind the yellow line.”

“Fuck off!” he replied viciously. “I know it’s over. You don’t have to rub it in. She took away my stars. I hate the city. She took everything I had away.”

The station didn’t reply.

The rails below his feet began to quiver and tremble. A faint screech came rolling from the north, carried on the pre-morning chill. As the first train sped around the corner towards him, he gave the sky one final look.

Between blinks he could have sworn he saw the thin outline of a girl balancing like a tightrope walker on top of the crane. She waltzed across the frame until she stood directly underneath the lonesome star.

As the daytime colours tore back the night like a cigarette skin, the star slowly faded. In the moment that it disappeared completely, the girl reached up on her tippee-toes and picked the invisible fruit from the sky, placing it gently in her pocket.

She turned and saw him looking at her: wide-eyed and slack-jawed. She lifted her arm out of her pocket to wave, but the first train of the morning rushed the platform and he never saw her again.

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